Constricted Political Debate CAMPAIGN 1994

August 31, 1994

As a political event, it was primarily a white-glove affair. No quarreling or pointed queries allowed. No sparring with opponents. No give-and-take. At the end of the 90-minute gubernatorial forum, the candidates were left frustrated and unfulfilled. The voters were shortchanged.

That, sadly, was the outcome of Monday night's televised gubernatorial forum at College Park. Rules established by the League of Women Voters were so restrictive that no debate was possible. The brevity of the responses (45 seconds, tops) made it difficult for candidates to give specifics of their positions. It was sound-bite heaven.

Lumping the seven top candidates together -- four Democrats and three Republicans -- added to the confusion. Helen Bentley may have had a tougher solution to the crime problem than Parris Glendening, but she's not running against him in the primary. The lack of a three-person discussion among Mrs. Bentley, Ellen Sauerbrey and Bill Shepard robbed Republican voters of a valid way to compare and contrast the three gubernatorial contenders. The same is true among the four Democrats -- Mr. Glendening, Mickey Steinberg, American Joe Miedusiewski and Mary Boergers -- who never got to confront one another.

Still, there were notable moments, such as Mrs. Bentley glaring into the camera to show she was tough on crime and growling, "I will catch you. I will incarcerate you and, if need be, I will have you put to death." As though a governor had such powers!

Not to be outdone, Mrs. Sauerbrey got off the best one-liner of the night when she accused Mrs. Bentley of being "a different shade of Schaefer." The Baltimore County delegate also had the most success listing some specifics. She promised to reject her $120,000 first-year salary as governor if she doesn't follow through on cutting taxes 6 percent in 1995 (and 24 percent over four years).

As for the Democrats, they tried to cast doubts -- indirectly -- on Mr. Glendening for his costly commitments to interest groups. But name-calling and finger-pointing were forbidden in this forum. The real debate never took place.

Nearly all the gubernatorial forums this year -- more than four dozen -- have suffered similar fates. No time to give much more than canned responses; no back-and-forth discussions; a jumble Republican and Democratic candidates who aren't even running against one another. What a shame. These seven candidates, overall, have run campaigns of substance. But you couldn't tell much from Monday night's forum. It was too crowded and constricted to help voters make up their minds. Let's hope another, more informative debate occurs before the Sept. 13 primary.

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